5 reasons why disconnecting from technology has helped me grow as a leader

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a technophile, but I’m fascinated with what we’re able to accomplish these days thanks to technological advancements. Tech has also helped expand my professional network, made collaborating with others convenient, and enabled me to learn and enhance my skill set. I just can’t imagine living without technology, and I doubt I’d be where I am today without it.

At the same time, being plugged in at all hours comes with a cost. Our addiction to technology can be so overwhelming that it jeopardizes everything from our health to our relationships — even our careers and businesses. Because of this, I’ve made an effort to step away from it.

Here are the five reasons I distanced myself:

Tech increased the amount of stress and anxiety in my life

Over the past few years, numerous studies have linked technology to negative outcomes. For example, social media can make you feel miserable about yourself; being glued to your smartphone can cause anxiety.

That anxiety sometimes creeps up because you’re jealous of the life you see others leading. Other times, stress bubbles up because you’re expected to be on call every minute of the day. It’s incredibly stressful to be on a vacation but feel you need to respond to an email ASAP — or else.

“Cell phones and a lot of the apps we use have been developed specifically to grab our attention. Most apps live off of ads or selling data, so what they want is for you to be on the phone as much as possible,” explains Sam Hunley, an expert in cognitive psychology from Emory University, to InMyArea.

“They’re doing things to keep you coming back and keep your attention engaged. On the one hand that doesn’t sound like too much of a bad thing, but when our attention is engaged and depleted that can actually cause some stress in and of itself.”

It’s frustrating to focus on work or prepare for a presentation when my phone is constantly buzzing with notifications. It sounds hyperbolic, but there are moments when I believe my phone is going to explode with the seemingly endless stream of texts, emails, and notifications from social media or Slack.

I’ve blurted out to an empty room, “Can everyone please leave me alone for five minutes?”

You can’t always completely unplug, of course: What if an emergency demanded your immediate attention? I’ve lost a couple of clients over the years because they weren’t able to reach me at the exact moment they were navigating a company crisis.

One quick fix I’ve found is to remove certain apps from my phone — mainly social media — and turn off email, Slack, and text notifications when I don’t want to be disturbed. On the off chance that someone truly needs me, I leave my phone on. This simple move has decreased my stress and anxiety; I’m able to remain 100 percent present with what’s happening at the moment. Best of all, I’m not getting interrupted by notifications that don’t deserve my immediate attention.

Tech interfered with my sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep was a struggle for me. I stayed up much later than I should have, scrolling through my phone or completing “just one more” task on my laptop. I woke up in the middle of the night if a notification buzzed on my phone. When my alarm sounded bright and early, I was groggy and miserable. Needless to say, there were days when I was literally dragging — and drinking way too much coffee to make it through the day.

Now, I have strict rules in place. I don’t get on electronic devices an hour or two before bed, and I keep my phone on silent overnight. Since then, my quality of sleep has greatly improved, and I wake up feeling refreshed and energetic. As a result, I’ve been more productive at work and cut my caffeine intake.

Tech was helping me — and hurting me — in getting things done

Between sleeping better and reducing electronic distractions, I’ve been able to get a lot more done each day. That’s because I have more energy and can devote all of my attention to the task at hand without getting pulled away to attend to a notification every five minutes. In fact, according to a study from the University of California, Irvine, it takes the average person 23 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted.

But it’s just not about being more productive at work: Decreasing the amount of time I’m on email, YouTube, or social media allows me to grow personally and professionally. I’m reading more often, applying the skills I’ve learned, and improving my health by exercising.

Rather than get sucked into the digital world, constantly comparing what I’d accomplished to what I was seeing in my news feed, I’m actually doing things. I have more to report on, but I have less inclination to waste my time crafting the perfect tweet about it — I’d rather get back to what I’m doing before I lose momentum.

Tech didn’t allow me to be alone

I’m not an introvert; I get energy from being around others. But everyone needs quiet time, introvert or not. Solitude gives you the chance to process everything that’s going on in your hectic life. It lets you reflect, renew, blow off steam, and determine what’s really important.

Recently, I’ve been going for walks during my mid-afternoon slump. These walks usually last no more than 30 minutes. But I often leave my phone in the office so I can be alone with my thoughts. Going out in nature (when it’s not raining) helps me get clarity on things, and I can separate myself and my feelings from the things competing for my attention.

When I come back, I’m ready to tackle the rest of the day. I carve out alone time in my day now that I never had before. Starting out, this can be frightening, but trust me: The world won’t end if you’re off the grid for such a short amount of time. Better yet, these moments of solitude can help you percolate solutions to your most pressing problems, reducing your stress further.

Too much tech time weakened my connection to the real world

I definitely don’t want to knock how technology has benefited me. The connections I’ve made  — particularly in other industries and countries — wouldn’t have been possible without it. But nothing can beat face-to-face interactions with people, and that’s now my focus when it comes to using technology: How can I facilitate more in-person interactions?

It takes some trial and error, but I’ve tried to take at least some conversations offline. If I’m out of the office, I share my calendar with clients, colleagues, or friends and ask if they’re available at a time when I am. If they are, I suggest meeting up for a cup of coffee. Instead of having every interaction with my team occur electronically, I suggest we have a weekly lunch meeting to discuss questions or concerns. Sometimes, we even take that afternoon walk together.

Not only have these efforts strengthened these relationships, but we also spend less time communicating digitally throughout the week. And knowing each other’s quirks and preferences better through our in-person interactions allows us to predict reactions and suggestions and carry through — without interrupting each other.

How you can realistically unplug

Some days, I’ve wished I could completely disconnect. The reality is that that’s just not possible. However, you also can’t be connected 24/7. It’s not just good for your bottom line to disconnect — it’s also good for your overall health.

So how can you realistically disconnect? For starters, you need to become more self-disciplined. It’s not easy, but you need to set boundaries. I only check my email at specific times throughout the day: before I start work in the morning, during my lunch break, and right before I leave the office. When I’m not working and eager to not be disturbed, I have out-of-office messages set for my email accounts and set my Slack status to “Away.”

You also need to change your habits. Instead of lying in bed playing on your phone or tablet, start reading a book. On the weekend, don’t have your gadgets by your side every waking moment. If you go on a hike, leave your phone in the car so you’re not tempted to look at it while you’re enjoying the great outdoors.

Set a rule about leaving phones out of arm’s reach during dinners, movies, or get-togethers, whether they’re meetings or friend hangouts. It creates an atmosphere of focus and lets everyone off the hook with distractions.

Finally, you can use tools like SelfControl or Freedom. They’ll block websites and apps for specific periods of time. If you fight the urge to scroll Instagram when you’re working, tech will, ironically, prevent you from giving in. It’s a great solution if self-discipline isn’t your strong suit.

Technology has been a huge asset in growing both my career and the opportunities available to me. But it’s also hampered my productivity and relationships, and it’s been an advantage to distance myself from tech when I can. Done intelligently, disconnecting from tech can give you as much as technology itself does.

 

Rashan Dixon is a senior business systems analyst at Microsoft, entrepreneur and a writer for various business publications.

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